A Kurdish flag flies at the Citadel fortress in the old center of Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
IRBIL, IRAQ — At an elite private school in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, children learn Turkish and English before Arabic. Kurdish university students dream of landing jobs in Europe, not Baghdad. And a local entrepreneur says he doesn’t like doing business beyond the self-rule zone because the area outside Kurdish control is still too unstable.
In the decade since U.S.-led forces toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Kurds have trained their sights toward Turkey and the West, at the expense of ties with the still largely dysfunctional rest of the country.
Aided by an oil-fueled economic boom, Kurds have consolidated their autonomy, increased their leverage against the central government in Baghdad, and are pursuing an independent foreign policy often at odds with that of Iraq.
Kurdish leaders say they want to remain part of Iraq for now, but that increasingly acrimonious disputes with Baghdad over oil and territory might just push them toward separation.
“This is not a holy marriage that has to remain together,” Falah Bakir, the top foreign policy official in the Kurdistan Regional Government, said of the Kurdish region’s link to Iraq.
A direct oil export pipeline to Turkey, which officials here say could be built by next year, would lay the economic base for independence. For now, the Kurds still can’t survive without Baghdad.
Their region is eligible for 17 percent of the national budget of more than $100 billion, overwhelmingly funded by oil exports controlled by the central government.
Since the war, the Kurds have mostly benefited from being part of Iraq.
At U.S. prodding, majority Shiites made major concessions in the 2005 constitution, recognizing Kurdish autonomy and allowing the Kurds to keep their own security force when other militias were dismantled.
Shiites also accepted a Kurd as president of predominantly Arab Iraq.
Iraq’s central government strongly opposes the Kurds’ quest for full-blown independence.
Iraqi leaders bristle at Kurdish efforts to forge an independent foreign policy, and the two sides disagree over control of disputed areas along their shared internal border.